As China gains upper hand, India leaves it to “wise people of Sri Lanka” to decide

“We didn’t do anything in the Maldives. So, we will have to let the public decide based on the local sentiment”

PTI photo
PTI photo
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Dhairya Maheshwari

"Now that general elections have been announced in Sri Lanka, I hope and pray that its wise people will make democracy win again," said Gopalkrishna Gandhi, India's former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, cautiously reacting to the political crisis in Sri Lanka, which approached its climax on Friday evening.

Unable to muster a parliamentary majority after abandoning Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe in favour of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday dissolved the Parliament and called for a snap general election on January 5.

"The coup is complete," pointed out analysts, citing the unconstitutionality of the Sirisena's order, which has also been called out by the United States, United Nations, United Kingdom and Australia among other western powers.

India, Sri Lanka's closest neighbour and a major factor in island's fractious domestic politics, has, however, been wary of publicly picking sides between Sirisena, now widely seen as proxy for pro-China Rajapaksa, and Wikremesinghe.

Wikremesinghe’s visit to India followed an ugly cabinet spat between the PM and the President, which witnessed Sirisena accusing India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) of plotting his assassination. While Sirisena denied the episode, Reuters reported earlier this week that the testy exchange had indeed taken place

"I don’t think we are looking in terms of engaging with any political party at this stage especially when things are still very fluid but also let me share with you that especially with the neighboring countries India enjoys good relations with political parties across the spectrum that is not only with the ruling parties but India enjoys good relations with political parties cutting across the political system," said Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Raveen Kumar, asked if India had been approached by any political party, in the face of local media reports that Beijing was abetting horsetrading to help Rajapaksa.

India's former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal notes that Beijing was perfecltly capabale of interfering in domestic politics of Sri Lanka, as it had done in Nepal by helping the "Maoists come to power."

"It is reasonable to assume that they would want Rajapaksa to win because he has demonstrated that he is close to the Chinese and despite credible allegations of debt trap, he will use the China card to ward off pressure from India," said Sibal.

Citing the example of the Maldives, another frontier where India-China geopolitical rivalry is playing out in full swing, Sibal said, "We didn't do anything in the Maldives. So, we will have to let the public decide based on the local sentiment."

Sibal explained that New Delhi may have been conducting its diplomacy at two levels.

"One is at a public level, wherein you distance yourself from such domestic politics."

"And the other is what the Chinese are doing. To what extent, if at all, India supports Wikremesinghe and his candidates would be a state secret," said Sibal.

Wikremesinghe's preference for India's increased economic involvement in Sri Lanka, in itself designed to balance China's growing economic heft, has been an open secret.

Days before he was shown the door by Sirisena, Wikremesinghe was hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who reportedly complained about the slow progress of various projects underway in Sri Lanka, being developed by a consortium of Indian and Japanese companies.

Wikremesinghe's visit to India followed an ugly cabinet spat between the PM and the President, which witnessed Sirisena accusing India's Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) of plotting his assassination. While Sirisena denied the episode, Reuters reported earlier this week that the testy exchange had indeed taken place.

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